What's wrong with Mitt Romney and his presidential campaign? That's the question buzzing around the political world today as the strategists, the pundits and many Republican voters wonder how badly Romney was damaged by his defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary Saturday.
It was a severe blow. Romney lost by a large margin as Gingrich garnered 40 percent of the vote to Romney's 28 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania received 17 percent and finished third. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 13 percent for fourth place.
Romney supporters say he is still a strong candidate and will intensify his attacks on Gingrich to recover his front-runner's status. He is expected to hammer Gingrich in a debate tonight in Tampa and another debate Thursday in Jacksonville as the campaign shifts to the Florida primary a week from tomorrow.
Yesterday, Romney came out swinging at a rally in Ormond Beach, Florida.
He called Gingrich a failed leader who resigned as House speaker "in disgrace," worked as a lobbyist "selling influence around Washington," and "has not had a record of successful leadership."
Romney also still enjoys some strong advantages. As political scientist Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution told me, Romney has a national campaign organization in place and millions of dollars at his disposal, and appears to be the strongest GOP candidate in both categories. And Romney supporters say he still exhibits the steadiness and calm temperament that will rise to the top eventually.
But Romney's failings are growing more prominent. "A lot of Democrats look at Romney and see a spoiled rich guy who can be taken down," says Galston, who is a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton.
His recent problems revolving around his work at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm, and his reluctance to release his tax returns have added to perceptions that he has something to hide and that his wealth and privileged background make it difficult for him to understand the problems of everyday people.
Romney's challenge is to show that he is "authentic" and not "out of touch," says Matthew Dowd, former senior strategist for President George W. Bush.
"He needs to prove that his private-sector experience created jobs and didn't just create wealth for his investors," Dowd told me.